An interregnum occurs when the ruler (King, President, prime minister, or leader by any other title) either lacks a clear sense of direction or the ability to move in his chosen direction, or both. In Washington this week, we have seen the stigmata of an interregnum.
We have a President who has had to abandon a policy of shipping arms to Iran - and admit it publicly on nationwide television. His first adviser, his secretary of state, has publicly, also on national television, disassociated himself from the policy. The leaders of his own party in the legislature have largely disassociated themselves from the policy. Public opinion has failed to rally to his cause. The President's spokesman at the White House has announced that the policy is in abeyance.
This is the sort of thing that identifies the absence of effective leadership. It has occurred in Washington following an election in which the President's party lost control of the Senate, hence of the entire Congress.
It also occurs at a time when the world's other largest power, the Soviet Union, has emerged from its own interregnum and is again in motion under a leader who has a clear sense of direction and the ability, within limits, to move in that direction because he has the consent of the principal counselors and tribal and military leaders of the realm.
His agenda is to revitalize a stagnant Soviet economy at home and obtain more elbow room for that process by a reduction of tension in his relations with the outside world. His foreign policy is well launched on attempted reconciliation with China and Western Europe and probably includes an arms control agreement with the United States.
The immediate condition in Washington does not necessarily mean that the last two years of the Reagan administration will be a continued interregnum, but the probability is uppermost in the minds of all politicians in Washington and, undoubtedly, in all foreign offices around the world.
The probability of a two-year interregnum is enhanced by the fact that the White House itself no longer has an agenda for controversial action.
According to White House sources, the emphasis during the final two years will be on ``a more productive America,'' deficit reduction, revision of the budget process, ``peace through strength.''
Another way of putting it would be for the White House to say that it proposes to push projects that enjoy the general approval of all political leaders in Washington, of both parties. This is a noncontroversial agenda that would be pursued by the apparatus of government even if the President were merely to sit in the White House and do nothing.
In the Soviet Union, under the communists, such political phases are known as ``collective leadership,'' which is a Soviet euphemism for the absence of a single, recognized, and accepted leader.
They had an interregnum or ``collective leadership'' between Joseph Stalin's death and the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev. They had another, briefly, between Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, and a third between Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev (during the terms of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko).
Moscow again has a strong leader with a vigorous agenda of his own. He is young enough to enjoy the prospect of a long enough rule to be able to accomplish necessary changes in the Soviet system.
Mr. Reagan's rule is limited by the US Constitution to two more years. He will be able during those two years to do only such things as a broad consensus in the Congress will permit and for which Congress is willing to provide the funds. He is, in effect, prohibited from any more secret adventures in power politics (similar to the Iran negotiations) by the collapse of the Iran affair.
Interregnums have their uses. They can be a time of resting from radical change. The twilight years of many a royal reign have been pleasant ones for the people. Stability and lack of change can be healing. Also, they provide a chance for the politicians of the next generation to study the existing system, discern its weaknesses, and devise such improvements as may come to seem desirable during the respite from change.
Mr. Reagan's first four years brought radical change at home - tax cutting, arms buildup, massive aid to farmers, and a big pileup of national debt. The following two years brought adventures in foreign policy - Libya, Nicaragua, and Iran.
The prospect now is for two quiet years ahead. But this does not necessarily rule out some modest form of arms control with Moscow. Congress would support an agreement that could justify some reduction in the military budget. The allies have ruled out any elimination of all long-range or ballistic missiles. There is resistance in Western Europe to elimination of all intermediate-range weapons in Europe itself. But modest limits are acceptable in the alliance and would be welcome in Congress.
The interregnum will be quiet, but not necessarily wasted time.